Lamb-tastic: Smoky barbacoa with house-made tortillas and chickpea consomme.
The hostess frowned, but remained polite. In the snug glass vestibule separating Main Street and the Technicolor dining room of Taqueria Feliz, the hopefuls approached her podium like plaintiffs in a courtroom. Table for four? Tacos por dos? “The wait’s about an hour and half,” she apologized with a shake of a shampoo-commercial mane. Group by group, they left rejected: the spangled and bangled, mom’s-night-out posses, King of Prussia finance jocks huddled in shearling-lined coats. All of them went back out into the cold Manayunk night in search of food, drink and shelter.
I was almost among them, but a reservation saved me. It was a last-minute insurance policy just in case this month-old Mexican restaurant, the third in the Feliz family from Garces vets Tim Spinner and Brian Sirhal, was busy on this Saturday night. Walking down Main Street to the restaurant, I wondered: Where were all the people who usually prowl Manayunk’s central drag? Answer: At Taqueria Feliz.
When I approached the double-wide, windowed-and-turquoise-trimmed storefront, the restaurant shocked me. I was expecting Calaca Feliz Lite, a small and casual place with a very abbreviated menu; I thought I’d be having a couple of chef Lucio Palazzo’s tacos in a plastic basket, some chips, a bottle of Jarritos… Not an exquisite pillar of seared snapper “enchipotlado,” its smoky, red-freckled, corn-stock, lime-and-crushed-chipotle sauce endowing the mild-mannered fish with Hulkish power.
“The name can definitely be misleading,” says Palazzo, who adorned the snapper with roasted corn, pickled jalapenos and diced avocado and served it next to moist, tender red rice. “The idea was to take our greatest hits from the other restaurants, but we wanted to make sure Taqueria was its own full-service restaurant at the same time [and] make a menu for people with all tastes.”
Judging from the masses packed into the dining room and little tequila bar up front, they’ve succeeded. What Cantina Los Caballitos is for South Philly, Taqueria Feliz is for Manayunk: a community clubhouse that’s whatever you want it to be, whether the setting for an intrepid meal of crispy grasshopper tacos (no, thanks) and medium-rare, plancha-ed lamb hearts marinated in parsley, serrano chili and olive oil (yes, please) or just an acceptable place to take your in-laws who think Chili’s has the best Mexican food around.
You can come here for margaritas or for Corona Light on tap and a giant mountain of nachos carefully layered with four kinds of melty cheeses, crema, cilantro, tomato, pickled jalapenos, rajas of poblano pepper and, if you wish, juicy ground brisket braised picadillo-style with potatoes, carrots, chopped green olives and ancho chile. When I think of great nachos, those served at Distrito come to mind, arranged in a single layer to avoid the dreaded naked chippage. Spinner, Distrito’s chef before embarking on his Feliz adventures, and Palazzo have one-upped those nachos with a family-sized approach.
For the nachos, as well as the salsa and guacamole apps, the kitchen crew goes through so many chips that it brings in pre-made tortillas, then cuts and fries them in-house. But for the tacos, the heart of the menu, the corn tortillas are Palazzo’s from-scratch recipe — tender, light blond and warmed on the plancha. Just as sushi is less about the fish than the rice, tacos are less about the fillings than the tortillas, and Palazzo’s can hang with any little old Mexican granny's from the Italian Market.
Back to the tacos. Palazzo does six styles — seven if you count the grasshopper — including an unconventional vegan taco starring deep-fried florets of cauliflower with accents of guajillo salsa, nopales and avocado-lime puree.
Meat, meanwhile, came in the form of pork shoulder al pastor that started with an overnight marinade of achiote paste, apple and pineapple juices, charred onion and garlic, chilies and spices. The crispy, fatty texture of pork mimicked the traditional style achieved from spit-roasting. Pineapple and raw salsa verde cuts the richness.
Another prep-intensive classic that Palazzo modified for the restaurant kitchen was lamb barbacoa. Unable to dig a pit to cook the animal on underground embers, he smoked two-day-marinated, banana-leaf-wrapped shoulder and belly on the stovetop over cherry chips “to remember that barbacoa is a live-fire thing,” then transferred the meat to the oven. There it slowly steam-roasted over a pan of dried chickpeas and chicken stock; the drippings mingled with the beans, creating a broth Palazzo clarified like a consommé, which came in a cup alongside the succulent pulled lamb, refried beans and tortillas. Some people drink the consommé like a soup, but I found it much too salty. Better to take Palazzo’s advice and dunk the DIY tacos in it a la French dip.
I tried some sides (sticky sweet plantains streaked with crema and queso fresco, brothy esquites) and desserts from Sweet Elizabeth’s Cakes across the street, but Taqueria’s intense, savory meat mains were what I carried home in my brain, and in a doggy bag. I considered handing over the leftovers to the sad sports still waiting for a table, but quickly came to my senses.
Taqueria Feliz | 4410 Main St., 267-331-5874, taqueriafeliz.com. Sun.-Thu., 4-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 4-11 p.m. Appetizers, $1.50-$12.95; mains, $9.95-$18.95.
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